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Quick! What Is the Word for a Pair of Opposites? [Video]

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Editor’s note: Brain Basics from Scientific American Mind is a series of short video primers on the brain and how we feel, think and act. Below is a synopsis of the first video in the series written by a guest on this blog, Roni Jacobson, a science journalist based in New York City.

By Roni Jacobson

Being unable to recall a word on the tip of your tongue is frustrating. A retrieval cue, such as the first letter of that word or a similar word that you see or hear, can trigger an association that brings the forgotten word to mind. The more we practice activating the associations between words and their spellings and meanings, the stronger the connections become. If we use or encounter a word—or person, object or place—rarely, we will have trouble retrieving that information. When we try to recall a word or other memory, our brain activity differs depending on whether we are successful. In successful memory retrieval, the hippocampus lights up and the brain recreates the pattern of activity that occurred at the time the original memory was encoded. Recreating the environment or mental state in which we learned the information initially can therefore be a helpful way to draw out stubborn associations.

Ingrid Wickelgren About the Author: Ingrid Wickelgren is an editor at Scientific American Mind, but this is her personal blog at which, at random intervals, she shares the latest reports, hearsay and speculation on the mind, brain and behavior. Follow on Twitter @iwickelgren.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jtdwyer 1:34 pm 03/28/2014

    I find that – when I can’t recall a specific word I’d like to use in constructing a sentence – it will ‘automagically’ come to me in a few minutes if I just stop trying to remember it an go on to thinking about something else. Of course, that’s not very helpful if you just dialed 911, but I guess that the stress induced by trying to remember does not contribute to successfully recall, and that some background retrieval task continues even if I no longer focus on remembering. If this experience is common, is their a better explanation for why trying hard to recall a word is not helpful?

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  2. 2. magiclure 2:14 pm 03/28/2014

    The problem I am having is that “oxymoron” does not mean “a pair of opposites”. An oxymoron can be simply incongruous pairings of words. A pair of opposite words would actually be antonyms, or a pair of opposite things form a contradiction.

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  3. 3. tuned 4:08 pm 03/28/2014

    Oh, I’m not antinymph.
    I luv nymphs!

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  4. 4. metamorphmuses 9:53 pm 03/28/2014

    magiclure, look it up – I thought the same as you, but it turns out that one sense of the word is “A figure of speech in which two words with opposing meanings are used together intentionally for effect.” I was more familiar with the second sense, to which you are referring, which is more generally “a contradiction in terms”.

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  5. 5. JanetHudgins 4:00 pm 03/30/2014

    I had the impression there was much more about the research but can’t find it. Now I’ll never know how to get rid of brain cramps.

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  6. 6. be rational 7:31 pm 04/2/2014

    metamorphmuses, “A figure of speech in which two words with opposing meanings are used together intentionally for effect.” is not the same thing as “opposites”. There is no implication of “are used together intentionally for effect.” in opposites.

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  7. 7. jimmy boy 11:32 pm 04/2/2014

    lovers ha ha

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  8. 8. metamorphmuses 11:24 pm 04/4/2014

    Perhaps SciAm is using the phrase “a pair of opposites” imprecisely, but I was commenting on magiclure’s ‘correction’ that oxymorons are “simply incongruous pairings of words”. In several dictionaries, the first and foremost definition of ‘oxymoron’ is given as I stated above, and accompanied by examples like “light darkness” and “slender obesity” – that is, they have to be terms that mean the opposite of each other. It is the secondary meaning, which is looser and more figurative, that I had been familiar with, and that magiclure is referring to. That secondary meaning enables us to pair words that are merely incongruous, like when someone considers “military intelligence” to be one.

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